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Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon at the Newshub Decision 2023 leaders’ debate, September 27, 2023
Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon at the Newshub Decision 2023 leaders’ debate, September 27, 2023

PoliticsSeptember 27, 2023

Leaders’ debate #2, election 2023: the verdicts

Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon at the Newshub Decision 2023 leaders’ debate, September 27, 2023
Chris Hipkins and Chris Luxon at the Newshub Decision 2023 leaders’ debate, September 27, 2023

Who came out on top in tonight’s leaders’ debate? Here are our debate watchers’ verdicts.

Toby Manhire: Hipkins learned from his mistakes

For most of the first debate, Hipkins’ neck was mystifyingly locked. He failed to turn his head and challenge Luxon directly. Tonight, with a much bigger audience in the room, it was clear Hipkins hadn’t just got the message, he’d ground it into a paste and injected it into his spinal cord.

“Christopher, if you can’t keep your promises in opposition, why should New Zealanders believe you can keep your promises in government?” volleyed Hipkins. He read out a racist statement from a NZ First candidate and demanded Luxon defend it. Luxon wouldn’t do that, instead offering a plaintive “We don’t want to work with them.”

There were at least 10 questions blared at Luxon by Hipkins, and a bunch more provocations. “Show us the numbers ,” he tried. “You called them bottom feeders,” he said, three times.

Luxon had the ripostes ready to go. “”It’s not going to make great TV if we’re talking all over the top of each other. Calm down.” He said, “I feel like I should give him a hug or something,” despite claiming never to have had an E.

As Hipkins raged at Luxon, Luxon pleaded aghast with Gower, and Gower fired back at both. For a moment I thought I was watching the Mexican standoff at the end of Reservoir Dogs with Mr Red and Mr Blue and Mr G. Mr G said: “You’ve just got to stop.” But only because it was an ad break.

Hipkins was too timid in debate one. In debate two he corrected that. Overcorrected? Once or twice, probably. But just as many times he caused Luxon to stumble. And at least this one came alight.

Toby Manhire: ‘It was clear Hipkins hadn’t just got the message, he’d ground it into a paste and injected it into his spinal cord’

Madeleine Chapman: Hipkins remembered he’s the better debater

What a different Chris Hipkins we got tonight. From the first question, he was needling and interjecting and getting his own questions in, something he only started doing in the last third of the first leaders’ debate. Christopher Luxon successfully threw everyone off two weeks ago by downplaying his own engagement in the debates, and tonight it became apparent how little experience he has truly arguing for his party. As Hipkins delivered one-liners and pestered him with rebuttals, Luxon leaned on his CEO experience, which is to say he attempted to play to moderator Paddy Gower and the studio audience, rather than the voters at home. Attempted jokes that had little to do with the question or anything his opponent said failed to land and had him looking flustered, at least in the room. When he tried to point at Hipkins’ new approach, noting that “this negativity from Chris isn’t good for him”, it backfired when Hipkins shot back, “you don’t like being challenged”.

Ironically, Hipkins won on the question of crime while Luxon managed to get ahead on gender and rainbow mental health. But overall, Hipkins finally found his gear. At one point he’d turned a full 90 degrees to face Luxon directly and question him incessantly. Gower, though a strong moderator, wasn’t needed any more.

Ben Thomas: A less agile Luxon allowed Hipkins to let rip

Paddy Gower delivered a livelier, more manic debate between the two excited leadership contenders. We learned that nether Chris had ever taken MDMA. We found out that neither wanted to buy killer drones. We learned that Chris Hipkins as a teen stole a traffic cone, and that present day Chris Hipkins would tackle him in the street if he saw him doing it.

The more raucous and fluid environment, and an engaged live audience of 200, helped Hipkins, who blossomed from campaign meet-and-greet introvert to a much more energised and aggressive debater in the manner of his parliamentary riffs. Luxon was less agile: if rugby aficionado David Cunliffe was on the network’s post-debate panel, he might have said Luxon was very strong at the set pieces but struggled to string phases together. Luxon failed to wrestle back control of the narrative on New Zealand First, after botching the announcement of his (grudging) willingness to work with Winston Peters earlier in the week. Hipkins, on the other hand, sounded ridiculous as he continued to lambast his former deputy prime minster as “bad for New Zealand” while suggesting everyone was allowed to install the seeming embodiment of evil in government, once. Hipkins also overegged his breathless attacks on Luxon’s religion, but won the crowd overall.

Ben Thomas on Chris Luxon: ‘very strong at the set pieces but struggled to string phases together’.

Both leaders will have to save a new “Final final FINAL” version of their fiscal plans with their respective finance spokespeople, as they rushed to commit on the hoof to expanding bowel cancer screening, investigating menopause leave in the workplace, and sundry other innovative policies thrown onto the table by Gower. Peters, Seymour, Davidson and Tamihere probably can’t wait to negotiate with them.

Winner: Hipkins, in a fugue.

Anna Rawhiti-Connell: The Hipkins of 2021 is back, baby

Two years ago, Chris Hipkins served up a laugh during dark times with a gaffe about spreading your legs during a Covid press conference. That gaffe went on to become tired, the team of five million clinging too hard to any moments of lightness, and it got a bit ragged. The Hipkins of late has himself seemed a bit tired, almost rolling over in his concessionary acknowledgement of the “mood for change”.

The Hipkins at tonight’s debate reminded me of 2021 Hipkins. Capable of bringing some fight in a dark time for Labour and able to react in ways that don’t make light of where we find ourselves but lift the mood a bit. Labour hasn’t been able to make much of its Covid management record during this campaign. No one wants to talk about it, we’re now burdened with the fiscal fallout, and the passing of time hasn’t served to heal but heighten everyone’s powers of hindsight. It might be a bit late to tap that Hipkins spirit of old and staunch the bleeding, but for an hour, I was briefly reminded why the transition of power in January felt logical and seamless.

As with the second leaders’ debate in 2020, Paddy Gower and Newshub made the most of being the fast follower to last week’s dull affair. Some will complain about tonight’s spicier fare, with the leaders addressing each other far more directly, but honestly, it was good to see personality from both Hipkins and Luxon. What is the TV debate for, if not to partially entertain us? We’ve been stuck in the drudge for long enough. Maybe it was the beer or the talk of MDMA, but I do feel like I have a smidge more serotonin after tonight. Seasonal election-induced depression? I don’t know him.

Stewart Sowman-Lund: Where has this Chris Hipkins been?

It’s unusual to see a prime minister acting like an opposition leader and an opposition leader acting like a prime minister, but that’s what we saw in tonight’s second leaders’ debate. Chris Hipkins came out the gate firing, with so much crosstalk it was at times hard to decipher what either leader was saying. Christopher Luxon wasn’t immune to this either, jabbing at the PM as much as he could throughout. He tried his best to position Hipkins as a negative leader, while Hipkins tried to pin down Luxon on being unable to give a straight answer. And I think Hipkins succeeded in this regard, such as in early exchanges on drug reform and on Winston Peters. Hipkins did stumble, however, when asked about a policy that would help young members of the rainbow community.

Both leaders were more lively tonight than in the first debate, and both can be pleased with their performance – but for me, Hipkins edged this one. Maybe it’s just in comparison to his middling performance in debate one, where Luxon effectively won by default. But this time round, there was no sign of the sleepy-losing-in-the-polls Hipkins. The Labour leader knew his policy inside out and had some zingers to boot, such as after Luxon was asked if he had ever spread misinformation. “You haven’t given any information, let alone misinformation,” Hipkins said.

It’s almost certainly too late to turn the Labour ship around and if the polls keep slipping Hipkins will be shepherding his party into an historic disaster. His best bet at saving the furniture and clawing back some support became obvious tonight: keep bringing the fire and keep wittling away at Luxon’s biggest flaws.

‘All my chocolate fish go to Paddy Gower and the entire Newhub production team’ – Joel MacManus

Joel MacManus: Let us give thanks and praise to Paddy Gower

All my chocolate fish go to Paddy Gower and the entire Newhub production team. That was great TV and easily the best debate of the campaign. This was a case study in why well-designed conflict is so important: If you don’t force them to fight, the Chrises will give bland, empty answers and voters don’t get to see what makes them different.

Chris Hipkins definitely had the stronger performance. He came out on the attack and didn’t let up. He managed to put Luxon on the defensive on crime, one of National’s strongest areas, and repeatedly knocked him for lacking details.

Hipkins looked like he poured far more effort into the debate prep, he had notes and fact-checks and attack lines ready to go. This was essentially Labour’s last chance; they’re down in the polls with almost no current path to victory. Early voting starts on Monday; this debate is the only major event that could materially shift voters. Hipkins got the win he needed, but not a knockout blow.

Luxon struggles off-script and when challenged. This is nothing new. He thrives giving stump speeches and doing retail politics, but he has always been shaky on Morning Report, and doesn’t land off-the-cuff zingers in parliament very often. His goal in this debate wasn’t to cut down Hipkins, it was to hold his own advantage. He appeared very much the prime-minister-in-waiting, and voters are starting to get comfortable with that idea.

Haimona Grey: Livelier, sure, but did any voter come away more informed?

The difference in the styles of debate between TVNZ and Newshub was quite fascinating. Tonight’s debate was noticeably more emotive, and not always comfortably so. While the TVNZ debate was characterised by two middling leaders chasing agreement, this debate seemed designed to force disagreement. This, combined with the audience questions, made it unclear whether it was a political debate or a Jerry Springer-style talk show.

To give him credit, Paddy Gower is the first debate host so far to actually hold the leader to the questions asked. His slightly snarky responses kept the leaders on their toes.

The problem is, I’m not sure any voter is more informed after this debate. Both leaders demonstrated that they can stick to talking points, but neither showed another side to them or clarified a position meaningfully. Luxon came close with his MDMA line, but he disappointingly reverted back to arguing for prohibition.

Hipkins often seemed on the backfoot and too often fell back to a whiny aggressive stance. His habit of calling Luxon “Christopher” and his upward inflection made him seem like a petulant child. He improved as it went on. He is across his policy platform, which has been actually announced, unlike National’s, so that helped.

Luxon was really active, looking for opportunities to crack jokes or throw in a one-liner. He’s definitely shown strengths, but he wasn’t outstanding. We may have found his ceiling, which is a solid party leader slightly fortunate to be up against a diminished Hipkins and Labour.

It’s becoming more and more clear each debate why minor parties are picking up so much support.

Charlotte Muru-Lanning: Were these really the debates we should be having?

This is the fourth debate I’ve watched intently over the last 48-hours, so either I’m a debate expert now or I’m living a waking nightmare of zingers, quips and post-debate analysis panels. I’m inclined to believe it’s the latter.

Either way, I was thankful that this debate (aka the “ultimate political face-off”) kicked off with a little more pizazz than the excruciating dullness of the first leaders’s debate last week. What I wasn’t so thankful for was the first question: “is crime out of control in New Zealand?”. A stupid, borderline impossible question to respond to with a snappy answer. Moderator Patrick Gower quickly followed with an absolutely bonkers hypothetical about what each leader would do if they saw a 13 year old stealing from a dairy. Gower then revealed that a dairy owner who had been a victim of robberies and ram raids was sitting in the audience wanting to know how each would make her feel more safe. The way this was set up was all very dynamic, but the framing left no room for nuance or delving into the issue in any thoughtful way.

The sparkiness of this debate seemed to work in Hipkins’ favour, with opportunities for witty retorts and moments where he could convey real emotion about racist rhetoric and harms to the rainbow community. Luxon hardly flailed, but he seemed slightly less in control of the conversation as he was last time. Both ended up making commitments to a range of random policies from feral cats, to bowel cancer screening to menopause leave, based seemingly on in-the-moment pressure from Gower. It didn’t seem like an entirely democratic way to get policy over the line, but oh well.

Mostly, I was bummed about what was deemed worth debating across the evening. The challenges faced by the most marginalised in our communities were ignored in favour of debates on defence spending, whether TikTok should be banned, and who will crack down on gang funerals the hardest. If this is what matters to us most, it’s hard not to feel a little dejected about the state of our politics.

Keep going!